After IS, Iraq looks to Jordan

After IS, Iraq looks to Jordan

With the looming collapse of the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq is already taking steps to reestablish security and plans to reignite development in Anbar province. Reconstruction and economic growth along its border region with Jordan will be paramount for Iraq’s political survival.

The defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq is imminent and much of the focus on Baghdad will involve its security prowess. However, the long term test will be the ability to harness and sustain relations with its surrounding Arab countries through trade and freedom of movement. To reassert itself in the post-IS environment, Baghdad depends not just on the future of the restive Anbar province, but on the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to ensure Iraq’s primary gateway to the world remains open.

Al Anbar Province is the largest land area in Iraq and borders three neighboring countries, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Jordan. The sparsely populated region paid a steep price in Baghdad’s quest to liberate the country from IS. Ramadi and Fallujah had entire districts destroyed as the Iraqi security forces and coalition targeted the militants with airstrikes and conducted siege warfare. Across the entire province a deep distrust of the Iraqi government remains high, a sentiment which drove many of Iraq’s insurgents from underground nationalist cells to the jihadist ideology of IS.

A security vacuum filled by three countries

Violence remains a threat to both Iraqi security forces and civilians in Anbar. An attack in the town of Rutba killed 10 troops at the end of April. This strategically-important town is the last major urban area before the frontier with Jordan. Rutba was captured by the extremists in May 2014 who quickly proceeded to seize the border. The latest attacks by IS are likely in response to an uptick in security maneuvers by anti-IS tribal elements north of Rutba earlier in the month.

Iraq has taken measures to enhance security along the highway connecting Baghdad to Jordan. Social media reports that the Iraqi army recently deployed more troops along the main transportation route. In March, a joint effort between the Iraqi “We Are Coming, Nineveh” Operations Command and the Iraqi East Anbar Operations unit landed the arrest of a top IS leader in Anbar province. Iraq is increasing military cooperation with the Syrian government by coordinating airstrikes against jihadist positions along the border region.

However, a spillover of violence from Syria’s civil war remains a real threat. Hundreds of Syrian government troops, bolstered by some-3,000 Iranian-backed Shia militia troops, along with tanks, have moved into the desert town of Sabaa Biyar near where the Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian borders meet.

The move, likely made by the Assad regime to secure the Damascus-Baghdad highway, was met with a deadly US airstrike on a pro-Assad militia convoy. This was done to prevent the regime from closing in on the US Special Forces that are based at the al Tanf border facility in Syria near the Jordanian and Iraqi border. The same US garrison had also repelled a IS attack earlier in April. It is now appears that the US intends to prevent the Syrian government from reestablishing its own land route to its ally, Iran. The high likelihood that militiamen who were killed in the airstrikes were Iraqis who were recruited by Iran to fight in Syria may complicate things for both Washington and Baghdad.

Despite wariness amongst the Jordanian security establishment of Iran’s recent activities near the border and Iraq becoming part of the “Iranian land corridor,” Jordan has taken some tentative steps towards normalizing relations with Damascus after the Syrian Civil War. Jordan’s military officials have paid visits to Damascus and Moscow along with being the only predominantly Sunni Arab country to attend peace talks in Astana.

Of course, Iraq still retains one foot in the pro-Western camp as well. Jordan hosted Iraq and several western countries during the 7th Eager Lion military exercise which was held over an eleven day period and featured a border security component. Establishing a solid trade relationship with Jordan will be paramount since the majority of the Sunni world remains apprehensive of forging a new relationship with Iraq due to the heavy presence of Iran in the country.

Diplomacy and geopolitical misgivings

The regional conflicts have taken their toll on Jordan’s economy. With a slow growth rate and an extremely high budget deficit, the Kingdom has struggled to attract tourism and to satisfy an increasingly restive youth. However, Jordan has not only remained stable, it has also successfully managed to retain its place in Washington’s foreign policy arena, especially with the arrival of the impulsive Trump Administration. King Abdullah has so far done well at maintaining the US-Jordan strategic relationship as well as guiding the new president through the nuances of Middle East politics. Baghdad will likely follow Jordan’s lead as it navigates its new relationship with the White House.

The Hashemite Kingdom has been a primary point of entry into conflict-ridden Iraq since the US occupation. Government development projects, military personnel, business travelers, and cultural exchanges programs between the West and Iraq all typically are funneled through Jordan. Due to Iraq’s conflicts, many Jordanians regard the Iraqi refugees with a strong dose of suspicion. Iraq is still heavily dependent on Jordan as a gateway to the outside world, since the long isolated country has few other options. The United States has attempted to ease Iraq’s isolation by helping Iraq to improve its relations with nearby countries, however, the success of these efforts has been mixed at best.

Iraq’s relationship with Jordan is paramount due to the misgivings of its southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia. For instance, Iraq’s southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, famously contracted Airbus Group to build a 600 mile border barrier along the Iraqi border. Recently, however, relations have slowly been looking up with the Saudis. Iraq was pleased that the Arar gateway to Saudi Arabia, almost 280 miles south of Ramadi, reopened in the summer of 2016. The flow of Iraqi religious pilgrims was able to continue for the first time since the start of the 2003 Iraq War. Relations are far from perfect, however. The Trump Administration’s encouragement of talks between the Saudi government and Baghdad has yielded varying degrees of success, and the resumption of direct flights and a cancellation of Iraq’s $30 billion debt still seem to be well off.

The recent release of a Qatari hunting party from the country’s royal al-Thani family, facilitated in conjunction with a population transfer deal in Syria along with ransom payments to the Iraqi Shia militia Kata’ib Hezbollah will make future dealings will the Arab Gulf States difficult. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi expressed dismay over the incident, a sign of contention within Iraq’s ruling political elite about the status of Iran’s activities in their country.

The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

A US DOD map of IS control in Iraq and Syria. Anbar province is clearly visible in Southwest Iraq.

The new frontier rises from the ashes?

For Jordan, the loss of land trade during the IS campaign has been a major economic pain, especially for a country with high unemployment and few natural resources. The Associated Press reported that trade earnings decreased from $1.16 billion in 2014 to $690 million in 2015. The situation is rapidly changing with new opportunities in sight. The two countries are working on eliminating customs fees from a long list of products aimed at improving and encouraging cross-border trade.

The two countries met in March to plan the development of regional energy resources. Jordan’s Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Ibrahim Saif noted that the first phase of the Basra-Aqaba pipeline, set to begin construction in 2017, would stretch from the southern Iraqi city of Basra through Najaf, and eventually link to the seaport of Aqaba in Jordan.

Jordan’s Minister of Industry, Trade and Supply, Yarub Qudah, said, “Providing facilities, encouraging Iraqi investors in Jordan and expediting the construction of the Jordan-Iraqi oil pipeline topics featured prominently during the discussions.”

This would be the first pipeline to straddle Iraq and Jordan since the ill-fated Mosul-Haifa pipeline, which passed through Jordan and reached the Mediterranean Sea. During the 1930-40s, Arab militants and the Zionist Irgun group frequently targeted it until it was finally terminated as the result of Israel’s victory in 1948. Talk of bringing the Mosul-Haifa line back to life after the US’ overthrow of Saddam Hussein quickly fell to the wayside.

In April, the Jordanian-Iraqi Business Council met in Amman to hammer out plans to revive cross-border trade. Among the items discussed were potential house projects in Iraq, logistical zones in the Iraq-Jordanian border areas and the construction of land ports with the capacity to facilitate the transport of commodities between the two countries. The Council has arranged to meet again in Baghdad this October.

Iraq also signed an agreement with the US-based company Olive Group to repair roads and 36 destroyed bridges, build rest areas, gas stations, and oversee security along the roads connecting the Tebril bordering crossing. In a sure sign of the post-IS political wrangling that lies ahead, many Iranian-backed Shia Iraqi factions expressed dismay that Baghdad would enlist the help of a private US company to achieve border and transportation security. Persistent rumors that the company is connected to Blackwater have added to the negative sentiments surrounding the project. Iraqi parliamentary figures are still pushing for greater cooperation with the Syrian government for securing the border. In addition, the US airstrikes in Syria against the regime-aligned Shia militia could also increase the chance of revenge attacks against US forces by the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq.

Anbar province was the primary hideout for al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor organization to IS. A leading Sunni politician, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, recently called for a “historic compromise” to prevent the country from breaking apart. Political reforms, decentralization, infrastructure development, and direct investment in Sunni areas are all key demands on the table. Baghdad has a new opportunity to heal these old wounds. To do this, it will rely on friendship with Jordan, however, events in Syria and at home may make the healing process trying and full of uncertainty.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris